Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Damian Duffy, John Jennings, & Octavia E. Butler (2020)

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

A spectacular reincarnation of Octavia E. Butler’s masterpiece.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, ABRAMS Books. Trigger warning for violence, including rape. Click on the images to embiggen.)

I’ve been staring at a blank screen for upwards of fifteen minutes, trying to figure out how best to summarize the first half of (what I consider to be) Octavia E. Butler’s magnum opus, the Parables duology. In the interest of expediency, I’ll just lift the synopsis from my review of the original:

###

Lauren Olamina isn’t like the other kids in her neighborhood, a walled-off city block in Robledo, just twenty miles outside of Los Angeles. Born to a drug-addicted mother, Lauren is afflicted with hyperempathy – the ability to share in the pain and pleasure of others, whether she wants to or not. This makes her an especially easy target for bullies – brother Keith used to make her bleed for fun when they were younger – so Lauren’s weakness is a carefully guarded secret, one shared only with her family. In this crumbling world, a near-future dystopia that’s all to easy to imagine, humans already devour their own: literally as well as figuratively. Lauren won’t make herself an easy meal.

As if her hyperempathy isn’t alienating enough, Lauren has another secret, one that she only shares with her diary. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Lauren no longer believes in her father’s god. Instead, she’s cultivating her own system of belief – Earthseed:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Lauren gathers these verses into a book that she comes to think of as “The Books of the Living.” Her new religion? Earthseed. Its destination? The stars.

Parable of the Sower is Lauren’s journal (of a sort). Begun on the eve of her 15th birthday and concluding more than three years later, through her diary we witness the collapse of Lauren’s fragile world. In a country wracked by poverty, climate change, mass unemployment, homelessness, drug abuse, class warfare, and unspeakable violence, Lauren’s small community is a fortress of sorts. Though they’re far from well-off, the diverse neighborhood manages to produce enough food and goods (and occasionally for-pay labor) to sustain itself. The residents put personal animosity aside to protect and care for one another: rotating night watches keep would-be thieves at bay; when one resident’s garage catches fire, everyone becomes a firefighter; and Lauren’s step-mom Cory schools the neighborhood kids in her own home, since it’s too dangerous to venture outside the walls.

It’s not much, but it’s home. But even at the tender age of 15, Lauren can see it unraveling: “We’ll be moved, all right. It’s just a matter of when, by whom, and in how many pieces.”

After a series of blows – the disappearance of Lauren’s father; several successful infiltrations by thieves; a fire that claims all but one member of its household – Lauren’s community finally falls. Drugged out on “pyro,” a group of painted arsonists torch the neighborhood, killing and raping its residents. Lauren is just one of three to escape. Along with Zahra – the youngest of Richard Moss’s wives – and fellow teenager Harry, they hit the road in search of water and work. A safe place to pitch their (proverbial) tent. And, for Lauren, a safe haven in which to establish the very first Earthseed community.

###

Butler is one of my all-time favorite authors, second only to Margaret Atwood (who, admittedly, often suffers from some pretty glaring blind spots when it comes to race; see, e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale); and her Parables duology occupies a special, even vital, place in my heart.

So when I heard that Damian Duffy and John Jennings were working on a graphic novel adaptation, I did an ecstatic happy dance in my seat, and wondered at its progress at least once a week for the next nine months or so. If it was just half as good as their treatment of Kindred, I reasoned, I could die a happy fangirl.

As it turns out? Parable of the Sower is every bit as good as Kindred. Which is to say, not quite as good as the source material, but pretty damn close.

The artwork is gorgeous, and quite similar in style to that found in Kindred. The dull browns and beiges evoke the dreary hopelessness of Lauren’s world, and are juxtaposed with pages of vibrant (yet often threatening) reds and oranges, and moody, atmospheric blues.

The narrative text appears on ruled paper, expertly calling up images of Lauren’s journal, the birth place of Earthseed.

I love how Lauren’s style evolves with time as she adapts her appearance to the world around her: when she and her friends hit the road, Lauren chops all her hair off so that she can pass as a man.

As for the plot, Duffy manages to distill Butler’s wisdom from a 350-odd page book to a much shorter graphic novel with ease. It’s been a few years since I’ve read Parables, but I didn’t spot any significant changes to the plot or message. (Though some of the verses of Earthseed might have migrated from Talents to Sower. To wit: “In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix first must burn,” the latter portion of which will grace an upcoming science fiction anthology edited by Patrice Caldwell and featuring “16 stories of Black Girl Magic, resistance, and hope.” I CANNOT WAIT.)

While I am indeed a sucker for feminist dystopian fiction, it’s Lauren’s science-based religion that really resonates with me. I feel like we’re kindred spirits in this way. I’m an atheist who understands that, sometimes, being an atheist sucks. It can be harsh and hurtful and bleak. Religion offers comfort in the face of adversity and loss. Saying goodbye to someone you love is painful; saying goodbye for forever is downright crushing. Sometimes I wish I believed in the afterlife, in a Good Place and a Bad Place, or in karma and reincarnation. I wish I had hope that I’d see my lost loved ones again.

But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, and so I stitch together my own little safety blanket of quasi-religious truths. Lauren’s Books of the Living plays a pretty hefty role, as does Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (especially the scenes where Lyra and Will lead the despairing spirits from the World of the Dead so that they can reunite with their daemons in the natural world).

There’s Carl Sagan’s starstuff and Aaron Freeman’s “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.”

The collective consciousness known simply as the Library in Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies trilogy, and Griffin’s ideas about alternate universes in Adam Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me.

Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts, given life and form and structure by Erika Swyler in Light from Other Stars.

The wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff in Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel, and the implications this mutability of death holds for the grieving.

And then there are maxims like these.

While Parable of the Sower is a grim story, all the more so for its prescience, it is not one without hope: like a phoenix from the ashes, Lauren rises from the rubble that was her home and introduces her fellow survivors and refugees to a new way of thinking, believing, and being. A spirituality that celebrates harmony with the natural world, rather than a system of dominance and destruction. A journey rooted in truth, yet propelled upward by visions of something better. Earthseed is lovely and brimming with promise, and I hope it takes root (though not among the stars – not until humanity can be entrusted with its own home planet, anyway).

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina, John Jennings, & Stacey Robinson (2017)

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

“Slavery didn’t end in 1865; it evolved.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for racist violence.)

At just fifteen years young, Alfonso Jones has already endured more than any human – child or adult – should have to. Before he was even born, Alfonso’s father was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a taxi fare, a white woman. Alfonso’s mother went into premature labor when the officers investigating the case executed a search warrant on the couple’s apartment, knocking over an altar of candles and starting a fire in the process.

Many people would break under far less, but Alfonso’s family persevered. Though he mostly only knows his father through letters, Ishmael has worked hard to stay a constant in his son’s life. His mother Cynthia is Alfonso’s champion; through sheer force of will – and Alfonso’s stellar test scores – she was able to gain him admittance to the prestigious Henry Dumas School of the Arts. She and Alfonso moved in with his paternal grandfather, the reverend Velasco Jones, to be closer to his school, and so Alfonso could have a strong male role model in his life.

Alfonso loves playing the trumpet, dreams of portraying Hamlet in his school’s hip-hop production of the play, and works part-time as a bike messenger to save some money to visit his father in Attica. Or so he thinks: just as he’s nearing his goal, Ishmael’s conviction is overturned on DNA evidence. Instead of a ticket, Alfonso goes shopping for a suit for Ishmael’s welcome home party. There, off-duty police officer and Markman’s security guard Pete Whitson mistakes the hanger in Alfonso’s hand for a gun, and shoots him multiple times. Alfonso dies on the scene, as his crush Danetta screams in shock and horror.

When he awakens, Afonso finds himself riding a ghost train, filled with his ancestors and compatriots: other Black Americans who were murdered by police officers. Eleanor Bumpurs. Michael Stewart. Anthony Baez. Amadou Diallo. And, of course, Henry Dumas, for whom Alfonso’s high school is named. Alfonso’s elders guide him through the afterlife, as he checks in on the people who had such a profound impact on his life: his classmates and teachers; his parents and extended family; and, of course, the officer who killed him – and the communities that both defend and condemn Whitson’s actions.

Alfonso and his fellow spirits are destined to ride the ghost train until they find justice, making this a journey without end for so many of them – and giving a new meaning to the chant “No justice, no peace.”

I Am Alfonso Jones is not an easy read, but it’s a necessary one. It touches upon so many of the issues surrounding the Movement for Black Lives: not only excessive force, police brutality, and the shooting of unarmed POC, but also mass incarceration; victim blaming; #NotAllCops; racist media coverage; unequal access to education; the impact of technology on organizing and protest; the generational divide between activists; intersectionality; accountability; the blue wall of silence; the tension between professional nonprofits (read: showboating by outsiders) and local grassroots organizers; and the effects of trauma on survivors, to name a few.

By telling the story through Alfonso’s eyes, Medina provides a unique perspective: we get to put ourselves in the victim’s shoes, as Alfonso bears witness to the myriad ways his friends, family, and society as a whole cope with his murder. Framing this against the backdrop of a hip-hop Hamlet adds another layer of depth and originality.

I Am Alfonso Jones is both a heartbreaking and impassioned call to arms – and an eloquent introduction to the #BlackLivesMatter movement for younger readers. The ending, while especially merciless and unsatisfying, is all too believable and true to life. Medina doesn’t pull any punches or try to sugarcoat things with a shiny, happy resolution.

That said, the story is not entirely without hope: Alfonso lived to see the first Black woman president. We should be so blessed.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Box of Bones #1 by Ayize Jama-Everett & John Jennings (2018)

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Off to a promising start!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racism, misogyny, and violence, including rape.)

I very rarely read single issues of comic books, let alone review them, for one simple fact: I just don’t have the patience to wait for the next issue in the series! Much like TV shows, I’d rather wait until the entire series has come out and then binge them all at once. But when the fledgling issue of Box of Bones popped up on NetGalley, I just couldn’t resist.

Luckily, the story in this first issue is somewhat self-contained. While we’re introduced to the concept of the main plot, most of the action takes place in the form of a flashback.

UC Berkeley student Lindsay Ford’s research into the appearance of “spectral creatures” at key moments in Black American (North and South) history has landed her in front of the faculty, arguing for the viability of her project. When asked if there’s a personal reason behind her academic interests, Lindsay remembers a story told to her by her grandfather. As teenagers, Jim and his friend Gauge were brutally attacked – beaten nearly unconscious and, in Gauge’s case, raped – by a gang of racist white classmates. Gauge turns to her mother’s “New Orleans voodoo” – in the form of a box of bones to which the practitioner must sacrifice her soul – to unleash her revenge.

While I do enjoy a good rape revenge story – because, let’s be honest, the world of fiction is pretty much the only time abusive men are held accountable for their actions – rape is also overused as a plot device. Gauge’s violation takes place off-screen, but it still comes like a punch to the gut, especially since it looks for a hot second like she might escape. Revenge comes quickly and is satisfying as heck. So I guess my feelings are mixed on this one.

Otherwise the story is engaging enough; a solid start to what looks like a promising series. Overall I enjoyed the artwork; though the monster has an over-the-top, gonzo feel to it, I quickly found myself digging the style.

I especially like how it changes and morphs with each “victim.” (Scare quotes because some of those peeps totally had it coming.)

3.5 stars.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Black Comix Returns by John Jennings and Damian Duffy (2018)

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

Meet your new TBR list!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

New to the world of comic books? Want to diversify your reading list? Looking for some STUNNING art by African-American creators? You’ve come to the right place: Black Comix Returns is collection of illustrations, comic strips, and essays by black artists.

Tbh, when I cracked this open, I was expecting to find an anthology of sorts, maybe a sampling of stories from up-and-and coming graphic novelists. This is almost as good, though: while we only get the briefest glimpse into the imaginations of each of the ninety-three artists featured in these here pages, nearly every two-page spread will leave you wanting more. Many of the illustrations are simply breathtaking, and the series descriptions had me adding titles to my Amazon wishlist like it was going out of style. The cover, easily one of the most jaw-dropping I’ve ever seen, is just a taste of the visual delights you can expect to find inside.

Additionally, the essays interspersed throughout give an added layer of context, exploring what it’s like to be an artist – and fan – in an overwhelmingly white (male) industry. Black Comix Returns isn’t necessarily the sort of book you read cover-to-cover, but do yourself a favor and make sure you hit all the essays.

I read Black Comix Returns as a pdf, but I’m sure it makes one helluva coffee table book. According to its Goodreads listing, the first title – Black Comix, which has since gone out of print – is somewhat of a collector’s item on ebay. The $29.99 list price of Black Comix Returns seems like a steal in comparison.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings (2017)

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Octavia E. Butler Gets the Graphic Novel Treatment (Finally!)

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

Inventive, hypnotic, unflinchingly honest – such is the work of Octavia Estelle Butler, and in Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, the grand dame of science fiction finally receives the graphic novel treatment she so desperately deserves.

First published in 1979, Kindred tells the story of Dana, a modern black woman who is suddenly and inexplicably transported to the antebellum south. She finds herself on a Maryland plantation, circa 1812(-ish), placed directly in the path of a drowning boy named Rufus. Over a period of weeks (her time) and years (his), Rufus will unconsciously summon Dana to his side whenever his life is endangered. Though she’s often tempted to let the selfish young man – and heir to the Weylin plantation – die, to do so would threaten her very existence. Rufus is Dana’s distant ancestor, and her life depends on the continuation of his. That is, at least until Grandmother Hagar Weylin has a chance to be born.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0006 [flickr]

There’s a well-known nerdy maxim (or trope, if you prefer) that time travel isn’t safe for black people, or women, or [insert your marginalized group here]. Time travel is “exclusively a white [male] privilege,” as Louis CK put it. Kindred manifests this principle in ways both chilling and potent. Dana uses her time in the past to try and change things for the better, if only in tiny increments: she surreptitiously teaches some of the enslaved children to read, and attempts to steer her great-grandfather in a more enlightened direction. Yet history is more likely to change Dana than vice versa, as she notes with shock and horror as she finds herself growing accustomed to the daily cruelties of slavery.

Likewise, when Dana’s white husband Kevin is left stranded out of time – for a whopping five years, as she later learns – Dana is frightened of who or what she might find upon her return. How might an era steeped in racism and misogyny stain the man she loves?

Kindred is one of my favorite books, by one of my favorite writers. The prospect of an adaptation left me both nervous and excited, which is par for the course when it comes to literature that’s burrowed its way into my heart and mind. But Damian Duffy’s translation of the work is masterful; he mostly captures the spirit and tone of the original, and deftly condenses the novel into a comic book format.

(I say mostly because, let’s face it, Octavia Butler is in a class of her own. The original work is infinitely more harrowing, but the adaptation is still pretty great. If you haven’t yet read Kindred, you owe it to yourself to start today. If you have, this will definitely leave you clamoring for a re-read.)

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0018 [flickr]

From the first panel, which ominously proclaims “I lost an arm on my last trip home,” John Jennings’s artwork is moody and atmospheric.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0001 [flickr]

Many of the palettes are stripped down, with two or three colors dominating many of the scenes.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0014 [flickr]

He employs some pretty neat tricks, such as placing close-ups of Dana and Rufus side-by-side to emphasize both their opposition and interconnectedness,

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0010 [flickr]

and underscoring Dana’s trips through time and space with dramatic changes in color. Some of the drawings, especially of Rufus and his father Tom, are a little rough around the edges – which struck me as perfectly apt, given the circumstances. Dana, on the other hand, is a near-perfect mirror image of how I envisioned her.

2016-12-23 - Kindred - 0007 [flickr]

2016-12-23 - Kindred - 0008 [flickr]

Even the design of the book is breathtaking. The book cover features an almost gothic landscape of dark purple trees against a black sky and lavender moon. On the back side, the Weylin house beckons. The first and last pages are splashes of red with streaks of pink; Dana, Isaac, or Alice’s skin after a brutal lashing.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0017 [flickr]

Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation is a wonderful homage to Octavia Butler and the world she built, explored, and ultimately dismantled in Kindred. I hope it’s also a hint of what’s to come: from Kindred to the Parables duology, Lilith’s Brood to the Patternmaster series, Butler’s novels and short stories are all but begging for second lives on screens both big and small, panels in comic books and fan conventions the world over. May Damian Duffy and John Jennings’s work introduce a whole new generation of fans to this extraordinary writer.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)